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Federer running scared of Murray - Supercharged Scot in prime shape for Grand Slams
by Malcolm Folley
With his muscular physique, relaxed mind and scintillating form, Andy Murray is a man without fear as greatness beckons at the Australian Open over the next fortnight.
Murray has breached the mind of serial champion Roger Federer, tamed the raging bull of tennis, Spaniard Rafael Nadal, and watched Novak Djokovic make an unconvincing start to the year with losses in Brisbane and Sydney to undermine his confidence ahead of his defence of the title.
Against this backdrop, there is an awakening within the corridors of tennis that Murray, who opens up against Romanian Andrei Pavel, will be a remorseless force from now on, not withstanding the regal brilliance of Federer, the marbled muscle of Nadal or the precociousness of Djokovic.
Tim Henman, the Pom who took more than his share of ridicule in Australia, understands the impact Murray is making worldwide. 'I have no doubt in my mind that Andy will win more than one Grand Slam,' said Henman, who appeared in six semi-finals at Grand Slam tournaments.
'At 21, he's only scratched the surface, yet he's already No 4 in the world and he's won nine titles. He will achieve far better and bigger things than me.'
The size of the shadow Murray has cast across the game ahead of the Australian Open, which begins in Melbourne tomorrow, can be measured by the discomfort being expressed by Federer.
The 27-year-old from Switzerland clearly dislikes being reminded of the damage Murray has inflicted on him in the past three months when the British No 1 beat him three times in succession. Each time Federer led by a set.
'Usually, if I win the first set, it figures I'd win the match,' said Federer nine days ago, on a cool, dark night in the Arabian desert after Murray reduced him to a pale imitation of a man who possesses an enviable 13 Grand Slam titles.
'It's a disappointing statistic,' said Federer, clearly irritated, just as he was when he learned that Murray shared the head of the betting market with him.
Only Nadal has condemned Federer to defeat on a similar scale. Federer can contend with a rivalry with the Spaniard, who beat him at the French Open and again in a titanic Wimbledon final; but to him, Murray is still a pretender without a crown. Yet Federer had to concede in Qatar: 'If Andy carries on like he is, he will have a shot at being No 1.'
Federer's one win over the Scot in the past three years was claimed, significantly, in the US Open final four months ago, when Murray was hit by fatigue and stagefright. Yet Davis Cup captain John Lloyd suspects the balance is now heavily weighted in Murray's favour.
'Roger can't get any better,' said Lloyd, the last British player to appear in the Australian Open final 33 years ago. 'He's played at a fantastic level, but he doesn't like to play Andy nowadays. He's moaned out here because the bookmakers have made Andy favourite to win it, something that would have been unthinkable even six months ago.
'To Federer, it's ridiculous and he doesn't like it. But I think the fact that he wants to make a dig at Andy in public is a sign of Federer's increasing vulnerability where Murray is concerned.'
Murray insisted: 'I don't have a problem being favourite or not. I guess Roger would prefer to be favourite himself, so that's absolutely fine. It doesn't change my mindset going into the tournament. It's obviously a good thing (to be seen as a threat). When you do become a contender for a Slam, the seedings and stuff help with your draws. It gives me that little bit of extra confidence.'
After dispensing first with Mark Petchey, then enduring a volatile 18-month period with American coach Brad Gilbert, Murray has placed around him a group of people he likes and trusts; coach Miles Maclagan, fitness trainers Jez Green and Matty Little, and physiotherapist Andy Ireland. Murray eats with them, plays football-tennis with them, and works himself to a standstill when the need arises. His change of attitude is unmissable.
Australian Rod Laver, still the only man to have won all four Grand Slams in the same year since tennis became professional 40 years ago, recalled watching Murray during his time with Gilbert.
'They were fighting each other,' he said last week. 'I sat there thinking: "What's going on? This is not a game of tennis." That was the rock bottom of his career. He is a different person now. He actually looks interested in the game. His knowledge is uncanny, he is tactically brilliant and he has amazing anticipation.'
True praise, indeed. Murray presents a humble account of how he developed his tennis education. 'I wasn't particularly good at school,' he said. 'But I've always been pretty smart on court. I find players' weaknesses because I watched so much tennis when I was younger.'
Nadal is aware that, in the months since the US Open where Murray beat him, the man from Dunblane has become an even greater threat: 'When you win in Cincinnati, Madrid and in Doha last week, playing against Federer and Andy Roddick, you are ready to win a Grand Slam tournament, no?'